February is a time when we celebrate Black heritage and the promising outlook of Black futures. In conjunction with Black History Month, TalentEgg is showcasing four agents for change who are driving the course and culture of the Afro-Canadian narrative.
Meet Dr. Afua Cooper
Dr. Cooper is an accredited scholar with a doctorate in African-Canadian history.
Dr. Cooper works as a professor at Dalhousie University. As the Portia White Prize Winner, Former Poet Laureate of Halifax, and an accredited activist and author, Dr. Cooper continues to advocate against social and racial injustice. Her work addresses colonialist trauma, anti-Black racism, and Black History. From publishing 12 books to winning numerous awards, Dr. Cooper has been recognized for a lifetime of work dedicated to transforming the Canadian Black narrative.
Over numerous emails and deliberations, I had the chance to reach out to Dr. Afua Cooper and learn more about her insights.
Here’s what she had to say.
Q: Do you think poetry, as a medium of self-expression and therapy, can be used to identify the disconnect between social structures and the failure to ensure the safety of black lives? If so, how do you feel your experience has informed the work you’ve created throughout your life, and does it answer to this social distrust?
I think the issues you identified must be addressed through policy. Poets and poetry can only do so much in this regard. Communities, civil society, and government agencies must mobilize to bring about the needed societal and structural changes. The concerns you raised speak to the fact that Blacks are not seen as full and equal citizens and so their rights are trampled upon on a daily basis by those who ought to be respecting and enforcing those rights.
The poet can speak to those situations through verse but it is not enough to point out what is wrong. Concrete action must also be taken. Words have to be put in action.
I use words, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, to write into being a new world in which I believe everyone is human and everyone is equal. My words are a chant against oppression and for equality and justice.
Q: How important is community and self-representation to African-Canadian youth? Do you feel Canadian society has ‘missed their mark’ in terms of integrating Afro-Canadian culture into the mainstream or does popularizing black culture negatively impact individuals rather than promoting black-led and owned businesses, cultures, and arts?
Seeing one’s self represented means the world. Halima Aden said she went into modelling because she wanted women and little Muslim girls who wear the hijab to know that they matter, given that the overwhelming majority of models are very thin white women. Having positive representation across the board of African Canadian people raises the self-esteem of Black youths by 100%. Canada has done a terrible job in this regard. In visual culture, Black people, especially men are represented usually as drug dealers, criminals, singers, or sport figures. This causes psychic death and despair in Black people. To live as a stereotype is demeaning.
Q: Lastly, as an author, poet, founder, and cultural figure, What words do you have towards a generation of Canadian youth that find themselves amidst life-defining movements and struggle with a lack of self-representation due to social prejudice?
A. Find a mentor, or a circle of people who can lift you up, who can nurture you. If you are able, also become a mentor and supporter. Community is important. There are many ways to build community: through religious bodies, school groups, library groups, health groups, neighbourhood organizations, sports associations, etc. Or it could be within families or circles of friends. You may also be able to reach out to others online. There are some wonderful online safe groups that lend support. With your group you can do daily or weekly check-ins.
It is crucially important to organize. You cannot do it alone. You needs partners, friends, collaborators. So organize, organize, organize. These are the words of Black power leader Kwame Toure. It was because folks organized that we now have a very powerful Black Lives Matter movement. Martin Luther King Jr. organized through the SCLC, and changed the world for the better.
B. Discover an artistic practice and dive into it. You could write…keep a journal or diary, record your words on your phone, make a short film. The arts can be a life saver.
C. Learn about your culture and history. Research shows that students who are steeped in cultural knowledge actually perform better academically. Cultural knowledge and grounding also raised the self-esteem of folks. Learn about the struggles and triumph of Black Canadian heroes like Thomas Peters, Viola Desmond, Henry and Mary Bibb, Robert Sutherland, Marcus Garvey, Jean Augustine, Michaelle Jean, Portia White, George Elliot Clarke, and Mayann Francis. And of the great African empires like Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Nubia and ancient Egypt. Learn of the achievements of Mansa Musa of Mali (the world’s richest man); Dr. Charles Drew (who invented the blood bank); Toni Morrison (world-famous writer and Nobel Prize winner); and child poet Phillis Wheatley.
Know your culture and history, develop an artistic practice, and love yourself.
Read “Poetry Can Heal The World“: an article written by Dr. Cooper: summarising the use of poetry as a medium for healing in conjunction with the Halfax Public Library.
Meet Ibraheem Balogun
Ibraheem is a multidisciplinary artist from the Greater Toronto Area.
From working with major brands to addressing client needs, Ibraheem has paved a career for himself through his hard work and perseverance. As a contemporary, I really thought about Ibraheem’s message and how it spoke to not only myself but other contemporaries. I find it inspiring to see cultural game-changers, especially individuals who are changing the narrative around race, injustice, and social issues. It is important to pave the way for the new generation who will address a new cultural context of equity, inclusion, and diversity.
I had the chance to ask Ibraheem a few questions based on his practice, particularly about temporally relevant social issues.
Here’s what he had to say.
Q. As a young Afro-Canadian artist, how do you feel your work is impacted by self-representation in mainstream media? Do you feel there is a lack of self-representation within traditional media for Black artists?
As a Nigerian-Canadian, I’ve had a complicated relationship with mainstream media and its representation of black people. On one hand, I’m annoyed at the performative, hollow gestures by non-black people that have become recognized as allyship. While at the same time, I’m somewhat encouraged and hopeful. More so in recent years, as there has not only been more representation but also recognition within traditional media for black artists and culture. I’m encouraged by the few I see because it only opens the door for other black artists. I think it’s important when we find ourselves in these spaces as black people, is to remain authenticto ourselves and use our experiences to uplift other people. I wouldn’t be at this point in my career if it wasn’t for the amount of BIPOC artists that have either helped me directly or inspired me indirectly. So despite there being a lack of representation, we can’t be discouraged as a culture but more so, [we need to] step things up to the point where the work becomes undeniable and always remember to give back.
Q. What do you feel is the biggest barrier in having your work seen and heard?
After battling, imposter syndrome, I believe it’s connecting with the right community. Even if you do find yourself within the “right community”, are you being given a space to showcase your voice or art?
While I do feel that way, I also take it on myself to make sure I’m doing what I can to make that happen when necessary.
Q. What is your message and who are you looking to inspire? As many people struggle to find their own selves, how might they find themselves within your work?
I often struggle to find meaning in the finished products of my work. Often the message is more in the process of the approach to a certain project. But at the end, I still ask “what am I really trying to say?” through my work and in honesty, I don’t know sometimes. What I do know is that as the firstborn in an immigrant household, deciding to pursue a non-traditional career has been filled with many trials and tribulations which I have fought, tooth and nail, to show my family that my goals have value and are worth pursuing. I’m not sure if I have an exact answer for people struggling to find themselves, as I’m still on the journey myself. One of my inspirations, Tyler, The Creator said, “Tell these […] kids they could be who they are. Dye your hair blue, […] I’ll do it too” and I think that perfectly sums it up. If you understand what I’m fighting for or come from a similar circumstance, I hope my work makes you feel less alone and encourages you to explore your ideas.
Meet Biko Beauttah
Biko is a Human Rights and LGBTQ2S+ activist.
Q. How do you feel minorities are represented within Canadian society?
They are not.
Diversity is about people, and inclusion is about culture. We have a lot of diversity at the bottom with that same diversity not being included at the top. Take the pandemic as the latest example for instance. It bothers me that all the talking heads, leaders and every expert we see in the papers or TV is mostly white. I am so done with this topic, nothing changes, it’s always more of the same. This is why I like to live my life in a way that I can be an example for the youth, that’s where the opportunity for the greatest change lies.
Q. As an artist who challenges issues like race, identity, gender/sex, who do you feel your work speaks to and why?
My work speaks to those who are uncorrupted by these corrupt systems. My work speaks to the youth and the marginalized, thank goodness, because they are the future.
Q. Injustice towards marginalized individuals is universal, although most modern media portrays the image of our southern counterpart. Many Canadian youth struggle with self-identity. How do you feel this mediated dissonance between that of their lived reality and others who are also experiencing injustice affect their growth? And what would you say to a generation of youth who finds themselves in such a stratifying time?
My heart aches for today’s youth. Their futures are being stolen from them by their corrupt elders who have been exposed to have been sleeping at the wheel.
My best evidence for this is the plundering of nature’s resources. Our survival as a species and that of our planet is directly connected to mother nature. Organizations like Save the Elephants, WWF, Save the rainforest and more have existed for decades. Every year, people give more and more to these organizations, yet every year, we lose more elephants to poaching, there is more deforestation globally. This is despite the hundreds of millions of dollars donated every year to combat these issues.
It’s exhausting, it’s depressing and it’s sad, we are doomed. This is why I am energized by the youth, that’s where all the hope is.
Bless the youth.
Meet Tristan Sauer
Tristan is a Fine-arts curator and Gallery Assistant.
I first met Tristan at school, my senior in Ryerson’s New Media Program. I’ve been following his work since he graduated. From running online galleries to being on the VibeArtsTO “Emerging Artists” roster, Tristan has made a name for himself. Through his art, Tristan tackles issues of identity, politics, and the challenges of the everyday. From wearables to computational arts, it is evident that Tristan will be culturally celebrated in the years to come.
Here’s what he had to say.
Q. How are Afro-Canadian individuals portrayed within Canadian society, are we influenced by our southern counterparts?
I have a hard time focusing purely on the Canadian societal view simply because it’s impossible to ignore the influence that American politics and news has on Canada’s relationship with race. But growing up in Toronto, I’ve always felt more at place than I would south of the border. Mainly due to diversity but also the ongoing illusion that Canada perpetuates: that we live in a post-racial country. An impossible notion from a nation who has never elected a BIPOC to Federal power, and where the Indigenous community is over-represented in the prison population. These negative connotations, created and upheld by inherent bias in Canadian society, continue to place BIPOC as “other” even when in reference to Indigenous populations who lived here for generations before colonization. This type of representation is a direct product of and a continued aid to white supremacy and systemic discrimination.
Q. A lot of the work you create addresses issues like race, identity, and politics. Who do you feel your work speaks to and why?
As an artist, it’s hard to control who is moved by your work and even harder to find a voice you feel resonates with the ears you want to reach. My practice as both an artist and curator revolves around the preservation of BIPOC voices, bodies, and experiences and what we consider norms in society, mainly drawn from the perspective of Afro-Canadians, as that is my lived experience. When producing work I aim to speak to what I’d call the status quo: people who may find my work uncomfortable to process, and who cannot immediately relate to the message and stories I am telling. I appreciate and enjoy creating work that speaks directly to specific experiences and communities but in an effort to enact change and discussion reaching beyond those who have predetermined ideas about the subjects I handle, is important. My goal is almost never to dissertate a meaning.
Q. As someone who identifies as Afro-Canadian, how do you feel mediated dissonance impacts the lived reality of those who experience cultural prejudice?
As I said before it’s almost impossible to ignore the influence that American politics and news have on Canada and how we talk about race. As a Canadian born BIPOC, we often feel as if the media is telling us that we don’t have it that bad, because America just has it so much worse. That racism is a problem that was born in the states and Canada is free of that burden. I mean after all, the Underground Railroad ended in Canada, and most people aren’t even aware we also had slavery. It’s blissful ignorance.
We’ve seen the need for cultural change, through the BLM social movement to various protests in response to the blatant neglect of Afrocentric human rights. Unfortunately, it is only until lives are lost, do we see the beginnings of political reform. From George Floyd to Breonna Taylor, it has been evident that our judicial and socio-political structures do not reflect the needs of those to whom they serve.
As agents and actors of change, we must answer to the digressions of our forefathers. We must be the generation that seeks to atone for injustice, as future generations will only reap the rewards of our efforts. To nurture, answer, and appreciate. We must advocate for the marginalized, those who are racialized and attacked because of the colour of their skin. Our world is founded upon age-old rhetoric that does not reflect the contemporary, ever-changing, and ubiquitous nature of our world.
Take time to see the light in the things that you do not see. During black history month, we shed light on key figures, events, and happenings that define our past and present. Although, it is not enough. We should be sharing the successes of Black individuals persistently. Speak, share, engage, but never encroach on the culture of Acro-Canadian individuals.
As a community staple, it is important that TalentEgg supports the cause and culture for equitable conversation.